Choreographer William Forsythe is a true force in contemporary dance. Susan Bendall spoke to him on the eve of his visit to the 2012 Melbourne Festival.

William Forsythe is among the most influential of late 20th and 21st century choreographers. His work traverses idioms from classical ballet to absurdist dance theatre and pauses to take in most things in between. A true post-modernist dance maker, for Forsythe nothing is off limits. He uses dance, voice,text, sound, visual art and anything else at hand to create trans-disciplinary works and combines these elements according to what he finds.

He accounts for this process simply: “I use what’s necessary”. In doing so, Forsythe paints himself as an exploratory, perhaps opportunist, choreographer who is always curious and willing to incorporate whatever is available to him as an artist.

Melbourne is to have the privilege of hosting William Forsythe and his Frankfurtbased company at this year’s Melbourne Festival. Dance Australia was afforded a are interview opportunity with this important figure in the dance landscape.

In talking to Forsythe, it became clear that he continues to be passionate about the dual disciplines of dance and choreography and that experimentation with new approaches continuously reinvigorates his practice. The work chosen for the Festival is I Don’t Believe in Outer Space, which is, according to Forsythe, a humorous reflection on mortality and an imagining of his own life in his absence. An intriguing conceit, this work was made as Forsythe approached 60 in 2008. Given its avowed autobiographical bent, one might be tempted to read all kinds of meanings into its absurdist non-narrative. Don’t expect ballet from this work. The sharp balletic (and ballistic) precision of In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (seen by Melbourne audiences in 1996) is nowhere to be seen. So why I Don’t Believe in Outer Space for the Melbourne Festival?

In reply, Forsythe says he wants to bring something that contrasts with the last work seen in Australia, Eidos:Telos, which he describes as “quite a heavy work”. (Eidos:Telos is a three part, multi-modal work that was presented at the 2001 Melbourne Festival). So I Don’t Believe in Outer Space represents a lighter approach to a deeply serious subject.

Forsythe is also keen to exploit and showcase the comedic talents of his company, a group he describes as “comedians who can dance”. However, the humorous intentions of I Don’t Believe in Outer Space have been embraced by some reviewers but left others perplexed or annoyed. So too have critical responses been mixed about the work as a whole. Some have loved it passionately, with a deep sense of appreciation of its inventiveness and wit, and others have found it grating, to say the least. When I ask him why the work elicits such dichotomous responses, Forsythe emphatically returns the question, “What is it about the critics?! It says more about the critics than the work! Audiences have been incredibly responsive.”

I Don’t Believe in Outer Space was conceived for the Depot in Frankfurt, a former tram depot that is one of the Forsythe Company’s two performance spaces. “It’s 30 metres wide and ten metres deep,” Forsythe says. “The audience is right up against the stage”.

His words evoke a very specific audience experience where the action happens along a plain or continuum, and where there is a strong sense of the spectators being participants in the action by virtue of their closeness to the stage.

When asked how this would translate into a traditional proscenium environment, Forsythe says that he was initially very concerned about how it would work on a conventional stage. However, “It has been performed that way now a number of times and it works great”. He specifically describes a “visual conciseness” that brings a different, more concentrated quality to the work in this format.

Willia m Forsythe was born in New York but moved to Germany to join the Stuttgart Ballet in 1973 and started choreographing three years later.

He took up the directorship of the Frankfurt Ballet in 1984. During his tenure at Frankfurt he choreographed extensively and created a tight-knit ensemble. Forsythe’s last tour to Australia was with the Frankfurt Ballet, which was dissolved in 2004. Although old news for Forsythe, for the benefit of Australian readers he outlined the dissolution of that company and the events that led to the formation of the current Forsythe Company in 2005.

“The Frankfurt Ballet ended because of a power struggle over funding at local municipal government level,” he explains. “The city received so much bad PR” for this withdrawal of funding, with significant opposition to the company’s closure coming from all directions.

In damage control mode, the government then apparently approached Forsythe to help assuage the barrage of attacks. At this stage he decided to “withdraw from the politics”, but proposed the formation of an alternative company. Smaller in size than the Frankfurt Ballet, one can assume that significant cost cutting measures were achieved as part of this process.

The Forsythe Company retains a number of dancers from the Frankfurt Ballet and they work closely and collaboratively. Forsythe says that this is because “I enjoy working with them so much as artists and people”. I ask him what he looks for in dancers and expected a catalogue of physical, technical and artistic qualities. Instead he reiterates the importance of what they are like as people: “It’s essential to get along
personally with dancers since you are working with them so intensively”.

Forsythe says that he maintains “an open-door policy”, welcoming dancers to work with the company in order to know how they will fit in. Dancers also get recommended to Forsythe but the fit between dancers and company is still paramount. Forsythe also looks for “artistic autonomy”; dancers who have agency in the choreographic process and who can be “partners in the making process”.

Forsythe once said in an interview that “dance is at the bottom of the food-chain” in terms of artforms. (He actually said that poetry was even lower!) Has its position changed? I ask.

He laughs heartily and explains that its position remains low and this is because dance does not have a tradable outcome, something that can be bought and sold, like art. Dance, therefore, can’t be owned so he feels the process of documenting may be useful. In response, he has set up “Synchronous Objects”, a project that digitally records his own choreography.

Forsythe describes the project as “testing the media”. In collaboration with Ohio State University, Forsythe, through “Synchronous Objects”, has funding to document choreographic scores as a way of preserving them as entities that can be studied and analysed. This process potentially offers a way into dance and the choreographic process. My observation from watching some of this documentation is that it is concerned with the trace left by movement patterns and revealing the underlying organisational logic of choreographic movement. It shows visual pathways and patterns left by movement and therefore affords a way of breaking down choreographic phrases for examination.

In his own practice Forsythe says that he is fascinated by the systems that he sees underlying movement vocabulary. He describes choreography as “an organisational practice”. He says: “Dance is a different kind of organisational practice and they sometimes overlap”. He has also said, at various times, that choreography is not bound to dance. But when I ask whether he believes that there is a future for dance as pure movement, he replies: “Absolutely, I still make pure dance works”.

In terms of what motivates his practice now, Forsythe reiterates to me that it is always the human element. “It’s the dancers who continue to make dance interesting for me,” he says. “People matter, not ideas”. He also points out that his practice is “not just about physical rigour; the opinions of my dancers are important to me”. He talks passionately about fairness being a guiding principle that he is committed to and how important this is in the way he runs his company.

One of the interesting things to emerge from talking to William Forsythe, as with other identities on the global dance stage, is to be reminded of the reality that having a successful career in dance is not only about being a talented dancer. This is a given. It is often just as important to bring other intelligences and personal qualities to one’s work and to truly offer the choreographer or company something extra to work with.

Increasingly, dance making is collaborative and requires dancers to offer more than their technical skills and passion for dance.

I Don’t Believe in Outer Space promises a work that will offer engagement for an audience willing to enter into its world. It will also offer an insight into the process and practice of an influential contemporary choreographer.

Susan Bendell

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